Lean into Learning with Sara Barnes (Robba)

In this episode of The B2B Leadership Podcast, best-selling author and leadership coach Nils Vinje speaks with Skilljar's VP of Customer Success, Sara Robba.
In this episode...

0:31 - Sara's current company role - Sara breaks down the Customer Success role, what the customer journey consists of, and how she was able to step into a leadership role.
7:33 - Introduction to a new leadership position - Most new managers can relate to the experience of realizing that something doesn't operate the way you thought it would.
10:07 - From manager to director - What skills were further developed to prepare for a bigger role with new responsibilities?
13:02 - Handling bigger picture objectives for the first time - Utilizing your previous experience while also leveraging mentors and other individuals in positions you hope to take on in the future is a great way of, as Nils puts it, "using the tools in your toolkit."
14:44 - The uncertain waters of getting to VP - Begin with understanding what you want customer success to look like, where you are today, and where you want to get to.
19:45 - Growing pains - It takes some time to come to terms with the fact that leadership challenges are constant and you won't have the answers right away.
27:25 - Advice for someone wanting to accelerate their career - Sara expertly lays out some simple but effective ideas for developing your skills for a new role.
32:36 - What do you look for in leaders? - There are several key things Sara looks for when looking for new leaders to bring to the organization.
35:22 - Sara's advice to her younger self - Trust the process. You will learn from all of your experiences.

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Today we have Sara Robba to talk about her leadership experiences, challenges, and expertise.

Like most of us, Sara learned some things the hard way as she continued to move up in leadership.

Continue reading to know more about her leadership journey.

Sara's current company role

Sara Robba is the VP of Customer Success at Skilljar, the leading customer education platform, purpose-built for external customer and partner training.

As the VP of Customer Success, she is currently managing multiple teams within the organization.

Introduction to a new leadership position

Sara started as a customer success manager five years ago. During her first year as an individual contributor, she found an opportunity to contribute to the company.

She identified a need that could have a significant impact on the organization. Then, she took the initiative to help the company solve the problem.

No one asked her to do it. She felt she had a responsibility to identify gaps and contribute.

Identifying a situation that needs to be solved, coming up with a solution, then executing it and positioning herself in the future were the key elements behind Sara's first promotion.

Today, Sara drives her team with extreme ownership as it gives them the opportunity to develop their own skills in different areas in a fairly low-risk environment, but also allows them to step up and show others what they're capable of.

Sara had realizations after her first promotion.

One of her first realizations as a new leader was that not everyone works the way that she does. Sara had moments where some things didn't work the way that she thought they would.

You have to adapt and adjust to the needs of every employee on your team. And that doesn't mean that it needs to be so custom that you can't actually scale yourself, but understand what they need to be successful and what makes them tick and adjust your approach to that.

From manager to director

How did Sara transition from being a manager to a director?

Sara has been honing her people management skills since her first promotion. She wanted her team to maximize their skillset to execute exceptionally well and drive the business outcomes that they were responsible for.

On the other hand, she also wanted to demonstrate that she's capable of moving into the director role. To do this, Sara had to take a step back and identify what they needed as a business and develop their operations to support the growth of the organization.

She then found an opportunity where she could flex her capabilities.

The formula behind Sara's promotions has always been the same. From being an individual contributor to a manager, now from being a manager to a director. It has always been about identifying the problem, coming up with a solution, and executing the solution to solve the problem.

Handling bigger picture objectives for the first time

One of the things that helped Sara handle the bigger picture objectives for the first time was the experience she had from being a customer success manager herself. Sara knew the struggle. So, she understands the challenges that her team was running into.

Another thing was the network she built. She had a group of mentors that she was working with, people that were in the position that she wanted to be in next.

It's important to have mentors that can guide you in your leadership journey.

The uncertain waters of getting to VP

How did Sara manage to get promoted to the VP level and grow her team at the same time?

She made it to the VP position by being able to over-index on the vision strategy planning and being able to execute very well at the director level.

The most valuable piece of advice that Sara learned from other mentors when developing into the VP role, was the goals of your cross-functional partners are your goals as well. Because if you make them successful, they'll want to make you successful.

As a leader, it's important to have cross-functional relationships as they will serve as some of your most valuable tools, and tapping into those resources help you find the answers that you don't have.

You're tackling problems that are at a different level at every stage, and there are more people involved with the higher the level that you go.

Acknowledging the fact that you don't have the answers to every problem and that you have to depend on others for the solutions to your problems is critical to being successful at the VP level.

Be comfortable in any situation because you don't know what's coming next and which problem you're going to encounter.

Growing pains

Challenges are constant. It took a while for Sara to understand this.

As a leader, your job is to solve problems and you have to accept the fact that you don't have the answers to all the problems. Enjoy solving every problem and celebrate each win. Always remember that problems come and go.

Your presence in the organization and what you contribute, change as you move up in leadership. You become a different person professionally at every level.

When Sara was a manager, she was doing a lot of hands-on coaching with her team and was deeply involved in their development.

When she moved up to the director level, her peer group changed, how she interacted with other managers had to change, and the way that she looked at things changed.

She was no longer focused on the silo of her team alone but on the business impact of her decision-making versus the impact of the decision on her team and on their customers.

As you continue to move up in leadership, you will have significant personal growth during the transition. You will be more collaborative that you can get along with almost anyone in your organization.

It is important to have a healthy conversation with your people because it's part of your job as a leader.

Another challenge that Sara had encountered was when the imposter syndrome hit her after being promoted to the director level.

Imposter syndrome is a belief that we get in our own minds that we're not good enough or we don't belong in this particular position. It happens across the board, regardless of the level, role, company, and size.

She overcame this after hearing the phrase "fake it till you become it". She realized that she will get there eventually, she just needs to continue and learn from all of her experiences.

You don't have to show up and be the perfect confident person every step of the way. Just continue to work at it and never let it defeat you.

Sometimes it takes you longer to get to that level of comfort than others. But you will get there.

You will become it if you put the time and effort into it.

Advice for someone wanting to accelerate their career

If you want to get to the next level of your career, take every opportunity that presents itself, especially the ones that scare you and make you uncomfortable. Within reason, use your own judgment. But if an opportunity is presenting itself, that is a chance for you to grow and evolve.

Invest in those opportunities because as soon as that opportunity presents itself to get promoted, one you'll be first on the list and two you will be set up for success because you've done the work to actually get there.

Take a minute to reflect back on the fact that you took that opportunity and celebrate that because it's not easy. It's not perfect, but you are developing and you have to celebrate your own development. And you do that by continuing to challenge yourself.

Ask for feedback. It's valuable. It's very important to gather feedback from your peers, from people that you work with cross-functionally, from other leaders and other departments.

Take the feedback to heart and make those improvements because that's how you're going to continue to develop and evolve. But remember that you're the one that's responsible for executing the feedback.

What do you look for in leaders?

First is excellent people managers. People are the most valuable assets. One of Sara's fundamental beliefs is that her team doesn't work for her, she works for them. And she wants leaders on her team that also view it that way.

If a leader is not effective at empowering their team and appropriately leveraging and developing their strengths, they're not going to be successful.

Second is execution. Being able to execute on what your goals are, is really important. You need to be able to effectively execute what has to get done.

Third is a strong culture fit. As a leader, it's really important that you have a solid vision and culture for your organization, and the leaders that you bring on align with the culture.

You need alignment on these foundational items because you'll figure out the workpiece of things. If you don't have that fundamental alignment on how you drive your team, how you execute with what you're doing, and what you're building, things will break down really quickly.

Sara's advice to her younger self

If Sara had the opportunity to have a conversation with herself back then, she would tell herself to trust the process. Growing and developing is very challenging but that means you will have some huge wins and you will also have failures.

Trusting the process and knowing that you will learn from each of those experiences, and really leaning into learning from each of those is so important.

It will be an ever-evolving process. But have fun while you're doing it. Don't forget to celebrate the wins.

The losses are painful but learn from them because it is all part of the leadership development process.

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